How to break a bad habit the first time with the right research

Do you want to REALLY break a bad habit? To do it right, you gotta research right THE FIRST TIME. Click through to read my tried and true method for doing just that!

Have you ever actually been asked what your biggest weakness was in a job interview? It's the urban legend of interview questions that, unfortunately, is actually real. How did you answer it? I care too much? Or maybe Sometimes I'm too detail-focused? And then you quickly made up a story of how you once weakened that weakness and you walked out of that interview thinking 'Nailed it!'

When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you. — African proverb

Humble-bragging may've fooled an interview committee, but it won't fool you. You know you spend too much time on Instagram. You know you snooze three times every morning. You know you haven't cleaned the litter box as often as you should. (The last one is me.)

You don't have to tell your interview committee, but you do need to tell yourself: What are your weaknesses? Now let's weaken them and bring some clarity to your creative process.

What are your weaknesses?

This part's hard. It might even hurt a bit. But I promise you, it's necessary.

To share your weakness is to make yourself vulnerable; to make yourself vulnerable is to show your strength. — Criss Jami, poet, essayist, and philosopher

To really create positive change in your life, to really transmute your lead into your gold, you need to purge the negatives. What habits, routines, biases, mannerisms, and so on, are keeping you from your best productivity?

Here are some common ones to get you started

They might seem harsh, but remember that you don't have to tell anyone but yourself. And it's important to be honest with yourself about your weaknesses if you really want to overcome them.

  • Self-doubting
  • Unmotivated
  • Lack of confidence
  • Misplaced ego
  • Lazy
  • Dishonest
  • Quick to judge
  • Procrastinating
  • Hot-tempered
  • Can't commit
  • Can't take criticism
  • Rude
  • Rigid
  • Hold grudges
  • Always a victim
  • Overly impulsive
  • Critical of others
  • Overly aloof

A number of you responded to my email asking what your own bad habits were. Some of the responses were:

  • planning too much and not having time left to execute the plans and goals
  • getting frustrated at not accomplishing what you wanted to accomplish
  • not knowing where to start and therefore not starting at all
  • procrastinating (most common one, by far!)

The good news? Every one of the responses I got to that email can be corrected with this method. So keep reading.

Choose your first weakness to weaken

Priorities are the foundation of an efficient and stress-free life, so it's time that you get some. Of the list you just made, what weaknesses bother you the most? What weaknesses are you ready of overcoming right now? Now, don't get all complacent and say, "I'll never bother trying to overcome my fear of public speaking, so I'll just put it at the bottom of the list."

It's okay to acknowledge that you don't have the time or ability to weaken a certain weakness right now.

It's not okay to use that excuse as a crutch.

You will never accomplish anything if you're afraid. #ToughLove

You’ll never accomplish anything if you’re afraid.

Be honest with yourself and be ready for change. This is your Inner Alchemy. It's starting right now, with this one decision to take one of your struggles and not allow it to be a struggle anymore.

Know why you want to change

I'm going to do this along with you. The weakness I've chosen is being a late sleeper. I want to be able to wake up early and have a nice, long, stress-free start to my morning. I want to be an early bird because I love the stillness and quiet of mornings before the rest of the world gets up, but I don't sleep well lately so I've been having trouble forcing myself to get up.

I know that a good morning is the best start to a good day, so weakening this weakness is important to me.

Research efficiently

The problem with research is that it can easily turn into a bottomless pit that sucks all the life from your motivation and all the time from your day. You can start with a single Google search for "better public speaker" and end up Six Degrees of Separation-ing all the way to an hour of browsing Baroque art. This is actually possible. I just did it. (But not for an hour — just to see where I could end up.)

So we need methods. Efficient methods that will get you what you want to know without taking your whole day.

Strategy for Changing Your Bad Habit

Now you've got your research and you should have some ideas of where to start. Before slinging spaghetti at the wall and seeing what sticks (I've always wanted to say that), we're going to develop a strategy.

Because you don't want to spend a whole year trying to change this habit, right?

You want to change it now, incorporate it, and move the f*ck on with your life.

So now you'll move into a more personalized method because you'll be arranging your notes into what you need to quickly learn and putting together a process that feels right for you. Next, I'll be showing you my process as I go along then covering how to maintain habit changes.

Change a bad habit NOW so I can move the f*ck on with my life? YES, PLEASE.
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Your Strategy to Change the Bad Habit

Take your notes you made with Part 1 and expand on them.

  • Which articles were the most helpful? Go back and read those thoroughly, if needed.
  • What search terms did you find that made you realize you need to expand your research? Search them and do a quick skim on the 3 best results (they may not be the first 3, but they should all be on the first page). You don't want to spend all day on this, so subsequent searches should be limited to 3 results, not 10.

For my bad habit (sleeping late, snoozing, feeling tired) I noticed 2 key themes in my notes:

  1. Creating rituals
  2. Sleeping effectively

I know I don't sleep well. My Fitbit makes sure I know it. It's something I've just accepted because when you live with 2 cats in a noisy apartment complex, there's little else you can do.

But times they are a'changing. My lease is up in June, so it's a perfect time to re-evaluate my sleeping practices. It's also important to not make excuses (like having 2 bratty cats or obnoxious neighbors). So, rituals and effective sleeping are where I'm going to focus my deep research.

Deep Research (efficiently, obviously)

Pick your key themes to deep research and jump in. Remember,  you're sticking to the top 3 search results this time. If only the top 2 or top 1 result looks good, then stop there. These are the terms I'm going to search next:

  • Creating effective personal rituals
  • How to sleep better
  • How to fix sleep debt
  • How to know when to wake up/How to find your circadian rhythm

I'm not really sure how to search for the last bullet, so I'm going to do a quickie search to see what pulls better results and I'm not going to waste any time if I can't find anything quickly.

Deep Research Results: 10-minute takeaways

When I do deep research, I try to limit the research of additional search terms to 10 minutes apiece. This keeps me from wasting a whole day researching something and never actually getting started. Here are my 10-minute takeaways from my chosen 4 search terms.

Creating effective personal rituals. Not much good here. Biggest takeaway was to know your stress points and motivations and to do something that avoids the first and feeds the second. Create structure around a central element. The rest focuses on staying motivated, which is not relevant to this topic. I can come up with my own method here and further research is unnecessary.

How to sleep better. Control exposure to light. Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, even weekends. Make up missed sleep with naps, not sleeping in. Get light exercise during the day, even walking. Bright light in the morning; spend time in the Sun during the day; keep curtains open when inside. Turn off blue light 2-3 hours before bed. Stop stimulating the brain 30 minutes before bed. No caffeine, alcohol, exercising, or big meals before bed. Wind down. Focus on relaxing, not falling asleep. Keep the bed for sex and sleep only, not relaxing or lounging; if you can't sleep, don't stress, just get up. Ban pets. Aromatherapy. (Whew, there were a lot for this one!)

How to fix sleep debt. Know how much sleep debt you have; each hour missed should be made up 1 for 1. Ten or fewer hours: add a couple of 2-3 hour naps over the weekend and 1-hour naps during the week. For more than 10 hours of debt, take a vacation. Yes, really. Sleep until you wake up each day. You can make up a max of 20 hours. You can't sleep 'ahead' to prepare for a late night. You can only pay back 1-2 hours at a time, so don't sleep all day expecting to make up a huge debt. Important: Learn how much sleep you really need to avoid more sleep debt; may be different from what you need now because you're currently in sleep debt.

How to find your circadian rhythm. Go to bed at least 8 hours before you need to be up and see when you actually wake up naturally; see how it changes over the week. Other notes: Best focus before noon; most likely to get distracted between 1 & 4pm; nap at 2pm; exercise between 4 & 5pm; most creative at 9pm. Humans are sleepiest between 2 & 4am and 1 & 3pm (more evidence for trying biphasic sleep). Controlled by a part of the brain called the Suprachiasmatic Nucleus (SCN), a group of cells in the hypothalamus that respond to light and dark signals. Light = cortisol production; dark = melatonin production.

So you can already see that I've got a lot to work with. Add in the notes we made from our original search and there's a fine strategy in the making. Let's see what I can do with mine.

Putting the Strategy together to Change Your Bad Habit

Go big to small. Determine your mail goal and develop your bad habit-changing strategy around that.

You may have noticed that my goal evolved over the course of my research. It went from wanting to be an early riser to realizing that the core problem of my so far being unable to do so was my ineffective sleep patterns. So my goal is now to sleep well and efficiently so that I can be happy about waking up early.

This is okay.

Don't box yourself in.

My main goal is to get better, more efficient sleep and wake up early and refreshed every day so that I can live a good life and create my Magnum Opus. Now I'll ask myself:

What is the biggest factor I found in my research currently preventing me from achieving my goal?

I'm confident that it's sleep debt from not sleeping well most nights. This is what I'll tackle first, using the information I gained from my research. I don't think I have more than 10 hours of sleep debt right now, so I'm going to focus on making it up and developing a routine that prevents it from accumulating again, using mindful routines and attention to my circadian rhythms.

My working strategy is:

  1. Continue power napping every weekday. Grab an extra 1-hour nap every Saturday/Sunday until I feel sleep debt is no longer an issue.
  2. Regulate light received. Go outside for 30 minutes each day instead of working through lunch; turn off my laptop and cell phone by 10pm. I may read by Kindle since it's low, non-blue light.
  3. Set and stick to a strict + overcompensating sleep/wake cycle until it becomes habit to sleep and wake at natural times. I'll start with a 10:30 bedtime and 7:00 wake up, which is 8.5 hours. I will use an alarm, placed across the room, until I get used to waking up without one.
  4. Create meaningful rituals. I'll create a morning and an evening ritual and stick to them each day, to train my brain into going to sleep and waking up when I want it to. At night, I'll turn off devices, grab a hot shower, moisturize, write down any last thoughts for the day in my paper planner, and read my Kindle until 10:30. In the morning, I'll get up at the first alarm, feed the cats so they leave me alone, start the kettle for coffee, and take a few minutes to stretch/yoga.

Notice that I'm not overdoing it here. I've given myself a small, easy to remember set of rules that I'll force myself to follow for as long as it takes to drop the bad habit. In my experience, about 50% of results will show up in a week.

Your strategy should address the biggest factor standing in the way of overcoming your bad habit in a meaningful, comprehensive way. If you need some help developing your strategy, share the key themes of your research with me in the comments, along with your main goal, and I'll help you out.

Refining Your Strategy

You will probably find as you go along that your plan may need to be refined. That's good. It means that you're in tune with your body, mind, and life enough to recognize it. Be open to refinement, but don't allow yourself to change your strategy merely because the first one you picked is too hard and you aren't keeping up with it.

If you find that you're not maintaining your habit, you may need to give yourself a swift kick in the will-powers.

Time (well) Spent

I spent approximately 3 hours researching this bad habit. I was researching and strategizing as I wrote these posts, so I could have done it in 1-2 hours if I was going hard and focusing only on research, versus research + relaying information. Your first time will probably take 3-4 hours, but once you get used to the process, it will go a lot quicker. The bigger the habit, the more research you'll need, too.

Your first time will probably take 3-4 hours, but once you get used to the process, it will go a lot quicker. The bigger the habit, the more research you'll need, too.

Maintaining a Habit Change

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle

Damn, Aristotle. You know how to drive a point home like a dagger, don't you?

Creating a new habit (or eliminating a bad habit) is only half of the battle. After you've done all the research, created a strategy, and implemented your new process, you've got to find a way to stick to it.

Easier said that done.

Different habits require different methods, so I'll share some of my favorites with you here. Pick and choose as required.

  1. Understand your WHY. If you are trying to change a habit for no reason whatsoever, then you have no motivation to change it. You need to feel strongly about your end-goal and you need to keep that in mind. Remind yourself of it daily. Write it down and stick it on your mirror. Know your Why and let it motivate you.
  2. Use Increments. You have your main bad habit-elimination goal, but you set smaller benchmarks to reach. This one is great for your Magnum Opus. "I will stop putting off writing my novel. Each day, I will write 500 shit words of the novel. They don't have to be good words; they just have to be words."
  3. If/Then (aka Rituals). If a certain trigger is met, then you condition yourself to react a certain way. For example, in your larger goal of eliminating a bad habit of procrastination, one of your If/Thens could be: "If I am finished with dinner, then I will clean the kitchen."
  4. Mark it on your calendar. Commit to sticking with the change for only 30 days. After 30 days, you can stop if you want...but will you want to? Create a ritual around marking each day off in your calendar and if you haven't done your new habit that day, then go do it quickly so you can mark it off.
  5. Use an app. Forgetting to do something (or not do it) is an easy way to derail a change. If you need to be reminded (you probably do) or encouraged (you probably do), then download an app and set it up right now. I like Way of Life and 30/30.
  6. Don't say "Fuck it" ("Never miss twice"). If you slip one day, don't give up on the whole endeavor. Do your best to make the most of that day and start again tomorrow. The slip-ups will lessen as you go along.
  7. Avoid eagle-eyeing results for 1 month. The early days of a habit change can be exhausting, annoying, and painfully unfulfilling. You will probably hate the first week. You may not see the results you want to see right away. Withhold judgment for 30 days. Write down a summary of your "before" — like a written snapshot of your bad habit. Tuck it away and don't pull it out for 30 days. At the end of your month, write an "after" snapshot. It may not feel like anything's changed at all, but that's okay. Just be honest. Then pull out your before and read them together. Notice what has really changed.

Which one do you think will work best for you?

You are the sum of your habits

If you want to create your Magnum Opus, you must do the work. Developing good habits and kicking bad habits is a huge component of that process.

Make the commitment to yourself to do just that.

You'll need to identify where your weaknesses/bad habits lie, decide which one(s) you want to tackle first, research those habits at both a high and a low level, and then create a personalized strategy. Next, you'll implement your plan, refine it as you go along, and maintain it. It's not easy, but it does get easier. Each time you change a habit is easier than the time before.

What bad habit will you eliminate first?